The May 3 death of a Marsican brown bear (Ursus arctos marsicanus) has put the world's rarest bear subspecies one step closer to extinction. Just 50 or so of the animals remain in two of Italy's national parks, a population so small that the bears are "below the threshold of survival," Giuseppe Rossi, head of the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio, and Molise, told The Christian Science Monitor.

The bear killed this week was likely struck by a car, an example of the increased bear-human conflict that has halved the population from 100 animals since the 1980s. In addition to traffic fatalities, poachers used poison to kill three bears in 2007, including a cub and his famous father named Bernardo, who was known for casually strolling around the streets of local villages. A female bear died in 2008, also from poisoning.

Although the bears have become people-friendly, that has put them even further at risk. As Italy magazine reported in 2008, some villagers "were unhappy with incursions by Bernardo and his kin, claiming they were a menace. The disappearance of high-mountain fodder and smallholdings has been one of the reasons why the bears have begun roaming further downhill, causing friction with humans."

Aiming to reduce this conflict, forest rangers have planted thousands of fruit trees in the parks over the last few years in hopes of increasing the bears' natural food supply. Last year, a $7.3 million project called Life Arctos (named after the bear) was launched, partially funded by the European Union, to coordinate conservation efforts between multiple government agencies and NGOs. According to The Christian Science Monitor, Life Arctos will help plant more trees and build electric fences around peoples' gardens and beehives to prevent bears from using human settlements as their grocery stores. According to the U.K.-based organization Save the Bears, the Marsican bears cause around $75,000 in damage every year to beehives, gardens and livestock.


Photo by Lox via Wikipedia under Creative Commons License